Sue Burke's Reviews > Mademoiselle de Malepeire by Fanny Reybaud,: Translated by Barbara Basbanes Richter

Mademoiselle de Malepeire by Fanny Reybaud, by Fanny Reybaud
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it was amazing
Read 2 times. Last read May 28, 2021.

I believe it’s good to read widely, especially outside of your favorite genre. So I said yes when the publisher offered to send me this book. The publicist suggested that as a translator, I would find it interesting — and he had the unspoken hope that I would write a review. Right on both counts.

Mademoiselle de Malespeire was a best-seller in France when it was first published in 1854. Its story seems simple at first. A young man, visiting his uncle at his country home, falls madly in love with a beautiful young woman depicted in a portrait, but no one knows who she is. Later, a visitor to the uncle’s home reveals that he, as a young man, had sketched the portrait of the young woman.

Many years earlier, that young man had been visiting the baron of Malespeire, whose castle-like home had been near to where the uncle now lives. The young man fell madly in love with the baron’s daughter, then just 20 years old. After he finished the portrait, the whole affair fell into disaster; he didn’t marry the daughter, and didn’t know what happened to her.

Sometime later, another visitor arrives at the uncle’s home and finishes the tale, describing the even greater disaster that subsequently took place.

The brief novel moves fast. Despite all the mad love, it’s not a romance — or rather, the ideal of love common to 19th century Romanticism is turned inside out. Be prepared for shocking reversals and surprises, and spilled blood. Love does not conquer all.

Because I primarily write science fiction and fantasy, I want to focus on the “worldbuilding” of the novel. In any story, the setting can be as important as the characters. In mimetic fiction (set in our current shared consensus reality) we often overlook the effect that our world has on us, like fish too accustomed to the water they swim in. Locating a story in strange waters affects not only the story, it can inform us about our own environment.

Even in the year this novel was first published, Mademoiselle de Malepeire spoke of the past. Some of the events take place before the French Revolution, which readers in 1854 might have found distant and unfamiliar. (Footnotes help modern readers understand tricky bits in the history and setting.) To us in the 21st century, that society and its tensions might seem utterly alien.

We may have forgotten how isolated those times were. The uncle’s home and, more importantly to the story, the baron’s nearby home can best be reached only by horse or by foot, not by carriage. It is cut off by time and distance from pre-Revolution aristocratic culture. Close by, however, is a village of rural peasants. Despite the isolation, restive Enlightenment ideas are penetrating minds within the house and the village.

Yet local society remains stifling, its limitations aggravated by pre-Revolutionary discontent. Within the baron’s home, the willful daughter has no future of her own, forever under the control of the men around her. In the village, rough peasants doubt their subservience to the nobility. Soon, the tension breaks into violence.

Romanticism championed the expression of individualism and the authenticity of spontaneous emotion. In this novel, these bring tragic consequences.

If you want a summer read with some depth, this might be the book for you. It includes an introduction to orient the reader, an interview with the translator, who did able work, and questions for a book club or for individual reflection. You might be moved to consider the role of honor and tradition in the novel, and how those same concepts function in our own lives.Amazon review

This brief novel moves fast. Its story seems simple at first. A young man, visiting his uncle in his country home, falls in madly in love with a beautiful young woman depicted in a portrait, but no one knows who she is. Despite all the mad love, it’s not a romance — or rather, the ideal of love common to 19th century Romanticism is turned inside out. Be prepared for shocking reversals and surprises, and spilled blood. Love does not conquer all.

If you want a summer read with some depth, this might be the book for you. It includes an introduction to orient the reader, an interview with the translator, who did able work, and questions for a book club or for individual reflection. You might be moved to consider the role of honor and tradition in the novel, and how those same concepts function in our own lives.
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Reading Progress

May 17, 2021 – Started Reading
May 23, 2021 – Finished Reading
May 28, 2021 – Started Reading
May 28, 2021 – Shelved
May 28, 2021 – Finished Reading

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